Analysis of the Extract of Canto 03 (line 128-160) – Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

 

Alexander Pope (1688-1738) - Alexander Pope was born on May 21st, 1688 in London, to a Roman Catholic family. Pope’s masterpiece is the Rape of the Lock, written in 1712, a brilliant satire on the fashionable life of the upper class of his time. The artificiality of the lifestyle of this class and the frivolous nature of the women are, exquisitely portrayed in this ‘epic’ which parodies the great classical epics.

The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic narrative poem written by Alexander Pope. The poem satirizes a minor incident by comparing it to the epic world of the gods. It was based on an actual incident between Arabella Fermor and her suitor, Lord Petre who were from aristocratic recusant Catholic families. Petre, lusting after Arabella, had cut off a lock of her hair without permission, and the consequent argument had created a breach between the two families.

Pope utilized the character Belinda to represent Arabella and introduced an entire system of ‘sylps’, or guardian spirits of virgins, a parodied version of the gods and goddesses of conventional epic. Pope used the traditional classical epics style to emphasize the triviality of the incident. The abduction of Helen of Troy becomes here the theft of a lock of hair; the gods became minute sylphs.  The poet uses the epic style of invocations, lamentations, exclamations and similes as well as parody to imitate the actual speeches in Homer’s Iliad.

Though, the poem is humorous at times, Pope Keeps a sense that beauty is fragile, and emphasizes that the loss of a lock of hair touches Belinda deeply. As poem reveals, women in that period were essentially supposed to be decorative rather than rational, and the loss of beauty was a serious matter.

 

Summary of Line 128 – 160

Taking up the scissors, The Baron tries three times to clip the lock from behind without Belinda seeing it. A Sylph tries desperately to protect Belinda’s lock, blowing the hair out of harm’s way and tweaking her diamond earrings to make her turn round. All in vain. Finally, Ariel gains access to her brain, but finds an earthly lover lurking in her heart and gives up. Finally, the scissors close on the curl. A Sylph tries to intervene but is cut in two. Being ethereal however he quickly becomes whole. The lock is cut and the Baron exults, while Belinda screams her heart out.

 

Overview

Title: Violation of a lock of hair is an exaggerated topic on a trivial matter. However, it may suggest the humiliation of a woman and the gravity of the act upon the character of the woman.

Form: Mock Epic (exalted style of epic to describe a trivial subject. The poet mocks at the trivial matter and the characters by treating them with exaggerated dignity that they do not deserve. 

Meter: iambic pentameter

Rhyme scheme: Heroic Couplets (regular rhyming in pairs which was a feature of legendary epics like Homer’s Odysseus.)

Tone: Satirical and Ironic  

Theme: Role-reversal of genders, deterioration of heroic values, falling off the proper upper class values, Humiliation, being subjected to violation due to falling off from chastity.

Main technique: parody

 

The Extract

A two-edged weapon from her shining case:

So ladies, in romance, assist their knight,

Present the spear, and arm him for the fight.

He takes the gift with reverence, and extends

The little engine on his fingers’ ends;

This just behind Belinda’s neck he spread,

As o’er the fragrant steams she bends her head.

Swift to the lock a thousand sprites repair,

A thousand wings, by turns, blow back the hair;

And thrice they twitch’d the diamond in her ear;

Thrice she look’d back, and thrice the foe drew near.

Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought

The close recesses of the virgin’s thought:

 

Two – edged weapon: the scissors

Her: Clarissa (the lady at court, a character in the poem)

Fragrant steams: the steam of the coffee in front of her.

Ladies in romance: juxtaposition, the knights are dressed in armor and the sword is given by the queen. (like in the stories of King Arthur.)

Thousand sprites, thousand wings: hyperbole, exaggerating the effort to stop baron.

Ariel: one of the sylph who represents parodies the gods in epics. (sylphs are invisible creatures, spirits believed to be airborne.)

 

Poet ironically juxtaposes the act of Baron to a knight’s act. In epics the hero is assisted in wearing the armor and handed over the weapon to fight. Poet parodies that epic characteristic ironically to reveal the fallen grace of the action committed by Baron who represent the upper class. Pope further parodies the three attempts before success and the intervention of sylphs to protect Belinda’s lock to illustrate an epic battle. This exalted attribution satirically criticizes the trivial incident that shows the intention of the poet to criticize the trivial act which actually set two families apart.  

 

As on the nosegay in her breast reclin’d,

He watch’d th’ ideas rising in her mind,

Sudden he view’d, in spite of all her art,

An earthly lover lurking at her heart.

Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,

Resign’d to fate, and with a sigh retired.

The peer now spreads the glitt’ring forfex wide,

T’inclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.

Ev’n then, before the fatal engine closed,

A wretched sylph too fondly interposed;

Fate urg’d the shears, and cut the Sylph in twain,

(But airy substance soon unites again)

The meeting points the sacred hair dissever

From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!

Then flash’d the living lightning from her eyes,

And screams of horror rend th’ affrighted skies.

Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,

When husbands or when lap-dogs breathe their last;

Or when rich China vessels, fall’n from high,

In glitt’ring dust and painted fragments lie!

 

Earthly lover: a mystery in the poem, nobody knows who really is her earthly lover. That may reveal she has a secret lover whom nobody is aware of.

glitt’ring forfex : the pair of scissors.

 

The Arial gives in when it realizes that Belinda is not as virtues as he believed. It may suggest that Arial lets the lock to be violated seeing that Belinda does not deserve to be protected. It implies that she has the characteristics to be violated. However, it is not the task of Arial to look into her thoughts and prejudice who she is; and further, though she has features to be violated, Baron has no right to act in a wrong way if he is too virtuous enough. This whole incident shows the deterioration of Courtly values in the upper class.  

The paradoxical juxtaposition of Belinda’s scream evokes humor and it is one of the best examples of Mock – epic tradition. Pope highlights the exalted behavior of Belinda after the loss of her lock. This in a way an implication of the importance of beauty on the part of woman. In 18th century the stereotype woman was considered rather like a goddess to be worshiped, there the beauty played a bigger role. However, the poet exaggerates this event to satirize the triviality of the act.

This part is the climax of the poem – Rape of the lock by Alexander Pope. To get the complete idea, I believe you should read the whole poem. However, hope this extract is clear to you. A small task for you: In the point of a woman, what do you think of the whole incident? Let us know it in the comment section. Please do share the post if you find it useful.  

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